F-35 Demo Team announces new pilot and commander

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kaitlyn Ergish
  • 388th FW

U.S. Air Force Capt. Melanie “MACH” Kluesner, an F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 421st Fighter Squadron, became the new certified pilot and commander of the F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team during the Air Combat Command Heritage Flight Training Course at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Mar 1, 2024.

Kluesner comes from a military family and was inspired at young age by her parents, both U.S. Air Force pilots, to become a fighter pilot.

“When I was growing up, I really appreciated my parents, family members and friends who believed in me and encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming a fighter pilot,” said Kluesner. “My dad was the Pacific Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon demo pilot in the 1980’s and my mom was the first graduating class of women from the Air Force Academy. She graduated pilot training as fighter qualified, but at that time women weren’t allowed to fly fighters. My parents are a huge inspiration to me and have some incredible stories from their careers.”

After graduating from the University of Southern California, Kluesner commissioned into the U.S. Air Force in 2014. She is a veteran combat fighter pilot with more than 1,000 hours of experience in a variety of aircraft, including the T-6A Texan II, T-38 Talon, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-35B and F-35A Lightning II.

“It was a long road to get to where I am and there is nothing more rewarding than doing a job you love for something that’s bigger than yourself,” said Kluesner. “Being the demo pilot means spreading that message to the next generation and I’m really excited for the airshow season to begin.”

Not only is the F-35A Demo Team commander responsible for a traveling team of 14 maintainers and supporting personnel, but they also reenforce the mission of the team across the globe each year by showcasing the combat capabilities of the F-35 and their unique military experiences to recruit, retain and inspire thousands of viewers at each airshow.

“I think it’s really important for people to realize that if you want to be a fighter pilot or serve in the military, it doesn’t matter what you look like or that you fit the specific mold,” Kluesner explained. “What does matter is being willing to stay disciplined, work hard, become a team player and care about serving your country. I’m humbled to be in this position and hope everyone who watches the demonstration is inspired to dream big just like I was when I was a little kid.”